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Two Stonington officers stand with protesters

Mystic — During a string of raucous but peaceful afternoon protests this week next to the drawbridge, veteran Stonington police Officers Theresa Hersh and Greg Howard joined the hundreds of protesters, holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and taking a knee when the demonstrators were lying on the sidewalk.

They discussed their roles as police officers with the protesters and their thoughts about the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes as three other officers did not intervene.

Howard, a detective and youth football coach, and Hersh, who also heads the Stonington Ambulance Corps, were back in downtown Mystic on Thursday afternoon, saying they wanted the protesters to know they stand with them and that they are all part of the same community.

“Some things are wrong and there’s no question this was wrong,” Hersh said about Floyd’s death. “So I had no questions about holding up a sign for this cause. We’re all human. We’re all part of the same team.”

As Hersh spoke, protesters, many of them young people, chanted and cheered while traffic crawled by with many drivers honking their horns in support.

“I love this community,” Howard said when asked why he asked his superiors if he could be assigned to the protests. “People need to hear from us that what happened in Minneapolis was 100% wrong. They need to hear that from us and we need to hear from them. We want them to know that black lives matter and we understand that."

“I want to have a conversation with people. I don’t want what happened in Minneapolis to create a problem we don’t have here,” he said, adding that Stonington officers work hard to be part of the community they serve.

Howard called the protesters “our allies.”

“Good cops and peaceful protesters are on the same team,” he said.

Howard said that on Wednesday night he, fellow Officer Joe Saunders, who is African American, two of Saunders’ African American friends from Maryland, Stonington high school basketball coach Jay Wosencroft and a resident who has adopted two African American children participated in a Zoom call and watched a video of a police traffic stop and arrest from Texas that involved an African American man and an officer drawing his gun. They then shared their perspectives about the stop. Howard has posted the meeting on YouTube.  

Howard talked about what the officers were doing from his perspective, Saunders talked about what they were doing from his perspective as a black officer and Saunders' friends gave their perspective as young black men. Howard said that was particularly helpful “because I’ve never been a young black man.”

Howard, who posted the Zoom meeting, said all police departments should do the same activity because of the insight it offers.

As the official part of Thursday’s Rise up Mystic protest ended at 1 p.m., a group of about 50 demonstrators remained. Asked if he was going to tell them to leave, Howard said no.

“They can stay as long as they want,” he said.

Jason Hine, the founder of Rise Up Mystic, the group that organized this week’s demonstrations, said some of his members were initially concerned when Howard and Hersh showed up.

“They came as police officers but they were clearly participating in the demonstration as our allies,” he said. “They took a stand to do that. They were not afraid to hold up a sign that said Black Lives Matter or take a knee with us. They were in every way participants.”

Hine said he was particularly impressed when a person in a truck driving by made some threatening remarks to a group of young female protesters. When Howard asked them what was wrong and heard what happened, Hine said Howard told them, “I’m here for you. I’ll stay here with you for a while.”

Hine said after the protest, the same people who initially had expressed concern about the officers’ presence, told him, “They came to our side and told us they care.”

j.wojtas@theday.com

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